We're Just Sayin'…
Cheer and Loathing in Perpignan
October 2009

by David Burnett

Photojournalism: The art or practice of communicating news by photographs,
especially in magazines …

You might have the impression that the world of photojournalism was in peril, but at this year's Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan, the 21st version of the annual festival that celebrates the power of the photojournalistic image, there was still much enthusiasm for the future. In spite of record budget cuts, and the thinning of traditional magazine clients, there remains a certain hope for the future that some combination of economic rebound and the solving of the "free content on the Web" issue will give photographers another chance. There have been many references to the "job of the month" club – even well-known photographers seeing their client lists thin to the point of a job per month – and despite that, the planning for future coverage doesn't seem to be waning.

The second floor of the Palais de Congrès is filled with a room of 'collective' agencies, perhaps a dozen or more, with names like Oeil Public and Tendance Floue. They are from most of the countries of western Europe, and are comprised of photographers who refuse to acknowledge the glacial slowdown of the business, many of them too young to even remember when assignments flowed like water. You wander through, looking at the small Blurb/Mac books they produce on every subject and you wonder if they have any idea that the money needed to run things is just around the corner, or forever gone. My favorite was terraproject.net, a group of extremely talented Italian photographers, based in Florence, who seem determined to push forward no matter what the financial consequences. You walk out of that room knowing that whatever else may be happening, there is still enormous talent at work, and that it will continue whatever the financial burdens might be. Realistic or just hopefully optimistic? Too early to say, but there is a lot of energy out there, and if some of the problems are modestly ameliorated, much work will continue.

Particularly strong this year in the exhibitions were Miquel Dewever-Plana and Dominic Nahr. The former's unflinching look at the social decay in Guatemala and the death squads of the Mara gangs is tough to look at, yet he remains uncompromising in his regard. The shocking news the second night of the festival was that Christian Poveda, who had dedicated much of the last 10 years to working in Salvador, and had produced a moving film on the Salvadorean Mara gangs, was himself a victim of violence, murdered on a country road, by unknown assailants. His film was to go into wide release in France the last week of September. Dominic Nahr's pictures from the Congo are equally raw and tough, yet each frame is beautifully composed, and impossible not to look at. There was a running photographic current parallel to the unease pervading much of the world now – this was never a festival of 'good time' photography.

Doubt about the future of the photojournalism business, doubt about the ability to share this work with others, and doubt about the photographers themselves being afforded the luxury to remain at what they are doing. During the "Pro" week, a new award was created for Web Documentary (Le Monde won) and it will no doubt serve as a motivating factor to try and advance the documentary concept into non-traditional forms. The bottom line seems to be that while the business of photojournalism is DOA, the underlying desire to tell stories and stay in the visual information realm is something a lot of people want to do. We need to find that way of connecting a potential viewer with a photographer who has something to say, something to show.

Rumors persist of a new Apple device, now thought to be out in January, and when that happens, or something like it, a lot of us who are looking for the next "platform" may have found it. Will magazines stop printing paper pages, and begin in earnest to produce content for people who want to see it while in a car/plane/bus/motel/home/anywhere? They just might, though of course the sticky issue of advertising remains the great conundrum. How does a publishing company (the one that actually pays photographers to take pictures) replace what were millions of dollars in revenue from selling ads of Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and other zingy products no longer produced? Find that link, and perhaps you'll see that the underlying premise of photojournalism will survive, and live to be published another day.

We're just sayin'… David B.

© David Burnett

David Burnett, a Digital Journalist columnist, is a renowned, award-winning photojournalist and author. Co-founder of the respected Contact Press Images photo agency, David was named one of the "100 Most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine. His book, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley" (Insight Editions), was published in spring 2009. His latest book, a 30th anniversary documentation of the Iranian Revolution, "44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World" (NG/Focal Point), was published in September 2009. Visit David's Web site: http://www.davidburnett.com/ and his 'blob' blog site: http://www.werejustsayin.blogspot.com/.

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